- Humor in Middle Eastern Cinema ed. by Gayatri Devi, Najat Rahman
Just as the definition of comedy can be broadly interpreted, so too can be the definition of the Middle East. The collection of scholarly essays found in Humor in Middle Eastern Cinema extends the region from Turkey to Pakistan, with each chapter exploring one popular film maker, national cinema, or film. The essays analyze humor in film that makes one laugh, or at least smile, primarily with irony and sarcasm. Consisting of nine essays, with three dedicated to Iran, the book rarely explores broad, slapstick comedy, outside of an analysis of comic stereotypes of ethnic groups in Israeli cinema. Unlike the other nations’ films, these stereotypes easily trigger comparisons to American comedies and their ethnic tropes, distancing Israel cinematically from its Arab and Muslim neighbors. What comes across through cinema is that Israel, which has its roots in Europe, does not suffer from the same threat to its nationhood as its Arab and Muslim neighbors. For example, Mara Matta, writing about the Indian film Tere bin Ladin, banned in Pakistan for poking fun at Pakistan’s failed campaign against terrorism, says, “Allowing the common man to laugh at big men would [End Page 251] deeply undermine the hegemony and cause a humanization–and thus weakening–of the sanctity of national and religious institutions” (p. 231).
Film also works to create a national identity in the absence of a government to do so, as in the case of the Palestinians. In her essay, Najat Rahman notes that dark humor seeps into most Palestinian dramas. She describes a character from the Palestinian film Paradise Now (2004) thus: “For Said, the forms of the violence that are imposed determine the struggle.” This analysis could be extended to humor–the violence determines the humor. When the love interest asks Said what type of genre he likes in cinema, he answers “The kind that frustrates.” She then asks, “Like what?” to which he responds, “Like life.”
On a chapter on the Tunisian film The TV is Coming, Robert Lang reminds the reader that film does not overthrow regimes. “Laughter and erotic adventure are merely survival techniques,” he writes. “As a real defense tyranny they are truly ineffectual.” But The TV is Coming, made four years before Ben Ali’s downfall, “throws down gaunt-let” (p.73). “The never ending debate about national identity is framed as one between tradition and modernity (where modernity, as Marx used to say, means constant change),” Lang says (p.72). In the film, a town prepares for the arrival of a German television crew planning to make a film about their village. The town leaders debate whether to serve traditional couscous or give it a twist. After various suggestions, the community leader agrees “to all of it except the opposing voice.” Although clearly about the Ben Ali government, it passed censorship as the regime had become so detached from its masses, it did not see itself in the film. [End Page 252]
The book also explores the relationship between viewers and the director, particularly in Cyrus Ali Zargar’s essay on the popular, prolific, government-approved Iranian sitcom director Mehran Modiri. His series are viewed enthusiastically, even by Iranians in diaspora, who are generally opposed to the government. Zargar suggests that scholars living outside of the Middle East have access to just a small amount of what is being produced in this region, and their assumption is to look at these programs and films in terms of ideology, which unfortunately removes them from embracing the entertainment such productions also provide. Anti-government Iranians still derive pleasure from these shows because they make them laugh at their social foibles. He also cautions against looking away from the universality of humor. Referencing Ajaz Ahmad, he concludes that when looking at the sources of humor, people across the world (such as minorities inside the United States) often have more in common than can be indicated by nationality.
While humor is often literally lost in translation, this volume leaves the reader...